An international team of palaeontologists, led by Virginia Tech in the USA, has discovered and named a new, early dinosaur, believed to be Africa’s oldest.

The mostly-intact skeleton was first found by a graduate student in the Virginia Tech Department of Geosciences and other palaeontologists over the course of two digs in 2017 and 2019.

The skeleton of a newly-named sauropodomorph, Mbiresaurus raathi, is thus far, the oldest dinosaur skeleton ever found in Africa. The animal is estimated to have been six feet long with a long tail. It weighed anywhere from 20 to 65 pounds. The skeleton, missing only some of the hand and portions of the skull, was found in northern Zimbabwe.

Christopher Griffin, who graduated in 2020 with a PhD in geosciences from the Virginia Tech College of Science, said: “The discovery of Mbiresaurus raathi fills in a critical geographic gap in the fossil record of the oldest dinosaurs and shows the power of hypothesis-driven fieldwork for testing predictions about the ancient past.

“These are Africa’s oldest-known definitive dinosaurs, roughly equivalent in age to the oldest dinosaurs found anywhere in the world. The oldest known dinosaurs — from roughly 230 million years ago, the Carnian Stage of the Late Triassic period — are extremely rare and have been recovered from only a few places worldwide, mainly northern Argentina, southern Brazil, and India.”

Sterling Nesbitt, associate professor of geosciences and an author on the study, added: “Early dinosaurs like Mbiresaurus raathi show that the early evolution of dinosaurs is still being written with each new find and the rise of dinosaurs was far more complicated than previously predicted.”

The international team at the heart of this discovery include palaeontologists from the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe, the Natural History Museum of Zimbabwe, and Universidade de São Paulo, São Paulo, Brazil.

The findings have been published in the journal Nature.

Image: Artistic reconstruction of Mbiresaurus raathi © Virginia Tech.